Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Will Walker: Oral history as a way in to complex discussions

Farmland, upper Delaware River, New York state, 1943 (Library of Congress)
Interviewer: Do you feel you have a different attitude towards food than someone from a more urban area?
Narrator: Well, I think something that a lot of people don’t realize and I think that they should start thinking about it more is our water supply. A good water supply, we’re losing it, for drinking water. Now my house, my farm is all on spring water. The farm up there, that’s gravity feed, we don’t even have a pump on it. The water runs freely to the three houses, the barn, and the cows. It’s self-flowed, runs right to the barn. Up on my house where I live in Pierstown, that’s all spring. The farm when we had it up there was all spring. I think that with this drilling and spoiling the water with doing things, building houses and stuff, we’re losing a lot of our good water supply and I think that we should be thinking about it.
This past fall, several of my students and I used oral history selections like the one above as the starting point for dialogue sessions on issues related to farming and the environment.  These narrative pieces offered a way into complex discussions of land use, natural resources, and agriculture.  Such conversations are urgently necessary in the area in which I live and work—upstate New York—as the natural gas industry presses for authorization to drill using the controversial technique known as hydrofracking.  Fracking was not, however, the only topic of discussion at the four dialogue sessions we convened in the fall.  Longer-term questions of agricultural and environmental change were also consistently part of our conversations.

Dialogue sessions have been the most effective way I’ve discovered thus far to engage community members on environmental and agricultural issues.  Using a model borrowed from the New York Council for the Humanities “Community Conversations” series, my students and I have had success getting a diverse group of participants to engage honestly with difficult issues.  I have been surprised both by the willingness of people to participate in dialogue and the range of people who have shown up for the programs.  We have had farmers, environmental activists, doctors, museum professionals, artists, and others attend. 

Still, I can’t help but feel that we are only reaching a fraction of the population, and we are missing two very important groups—organic farmers and pro-fracking individuals.    I’d very much like to get people from each of these groups together to speak openly and honestly not only about fracking, which would almost certainly be acrimonious, but about larger issues of the past, present, and future of farming.  To date, however, I’ve found the organic farmers in the area to be reluctant to speak—about much of anything.  They’d rather tend to their farms and businesses than get involved in oral history projects.  At the same time, I must admit I’ve been reluctant to actively pursue direct dialogue with pro-fracking individuals.  As we move forward, my students and I will work harder to broaden the reach of our work and expand the number of voices that are heard.  Perhaps the other members of the working group can provide us with tips on how to do more effective outreach in these areas.

~ Will Walker is assistant professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (State University of New York-Oneonta).  This post is part of a series of pre-conference discussions for the "Public History and the Local Food Movement" Working Group of the 2013 National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa.


  1. The question of how to interest farmers themselves in these kinds of projects is really a good one, Will. My experience is that unless there's some tangible, practical benefit to them, they're not likely to take time and energy away from the all-absorbing task of creating and running their farms, as you say. So I guess my question in return would be, "What benefit might accrue to farmers from engaging in these programs?" (or maybe "How might the programs be tweaked so that there *is* some benefit to farmers?").

  2. I think what's interesting though, is how many other things farmers and farm families do that don't necessarily have a clear benefit to them. My volunteer fire department, the local church, and so many other organizations have farmers as a mainstay. So the question might be expanded to "How might the programs be tweaked so that there is a greater understanding of direct community benefit?"

  3. Good point, Linda. There are obviously many kinds of benefits and satisfactions that accrue from being part of a functioning community, so perhaps that broader question has to do with making a case for how historical work can contribute to that kind of healthy functioning. Michelle didn't mention "resilience" per se in her initial post, but that's been a big part of her overall argument for doing food-related programming in historical institutions - i.e. it can potentially contribute to strengthening collective dialogue and decision-making in a number of ways, with important knock-on effects for civic health.